On The Mask Of Command and Heroic Leadership

After reading Team of Rivals, I was interested to learn more about Ulysses S. Grant, and thus I decided to read the Mask of Command by John Keegan.

In this book, John reviews and highlights of the styles of command of each of the following four historic generals: Alexander the Great, Wellington, Grant, and Hitler.

In his introduction, John defines leadership and how the recounts to follow will be assessed from that perspective:

Heroic leadership – any leadership – is, like priesthood, statesmanship, even genius, a matter of externals almost as much as of internalities. The exceptional are both shown to and hidden from the mass of humankind, revealed by artifice, presented by theatre. The theatrical impulse will be strong in the successful politician, teacher, entrepreneur, athlete, or divine, and will be both expected and reinforced by the audiences to which they perform. In no exceptional human being will it be stronger than in the man who must carry forward others to the risk of their lives. What they know of him must be what they hope and require. What they should not know of him must be concealed at all cost. The leader of men in warfare can show himself to his followers only through a mask, a mask that he must make for himself, but a mask made in such form as will mark him to men of his time and place as the leader they want and need. What follows is an attempt, across time and place, to penetrate the mask of command.

On Alexander the Great:

John, begins, first reminds us just how monumental his conquests were:

Thus is it just possible to grasp how extraordinary was the career of Alexander the Great. The distances and obstacles of either enterprise defeat the imagination – and they have, indeed, no parallel in any reality except that of Alexander’s own life…His orgy of victory was, of course, even more telescoped in time than Napoleon’s, who in turn gave battle oftener than Alexander ever did. Yet the achievements of none of these earthshakers quite match those of the original.

From his upbringing, courage/heroism was instilled in him:

Epic poetry meant Homer, whose celebration of the Greek heroic past was to determine Alexander’s approach to life. Disregard for personal danger, the running of risk for its own sake, the dramatic challenge of single combat, the display of life-and-death courage under the eyes of men equal in their masculinity if not in social rank such was the raw material of the Homeric cannon, and on it Alexander’s imagination began to feed in childhood.

His leadership style was one of self-command:

Alexander commanded alone, certainly maintaining nothing like the ‘three bureaux’ system – operations, intelligence, logistics through which European armies of the last hundred years have been articulated…But our main sources give no real hint that Alexander used his circle of friends as a sounding-board for his plans. That was not their function: it was personality and character that were under test when Alexander was among his close Companions, the test of quickness of wit, sharpness of retort, memory for an apt phrase, skill in masking insult, boast or flattery, capacity to see deep into the bottom of a glass, and no heeltaps. When in doubt – and Alexander probably took the trouble to disguise doubt though he felt it hut rarely – he turned to the most experienced professional at the court, Parmenio, to help him fix his ideas, using the old general’s temperamental prudence as a catalyst to precipitate his preference for the bold and immediate option.

He lead by example as well as by indulgence:

Alexander, in short, sought to lead by indulgence as well as by example. Indulgence could take various forms. Early in the Asia Min block grant of what today the British army would call ‘compassionate leave’: ‘some of the Macedonians had been recently married; Alexander sent them off to spend the winter with their wives in Macedonia … He gained as much popularity by this act as by any other.’

He was a storyteller and an effective orator:

If Alexander was a supreme theatrical performer to the point achieved by the greatest of actors – not consciously calculating the impact of his performances, but letting its force transcend both his own and his audience’s emotions – he was at the same time the most calculating of dramatic orators. Oratory, whose public importance in our own time has been overtaken by the small intricate skills of the electronic conversationalist, retained its power to move hearts and sway minds even into the age of the printed word…Alexander certainly possessed the envied power of oratory to a supreme degree. How he exercised it we can now only guess. Before artificial amplification, speakers could be sure of carrying their voice to large numbers only by careful pre-arrangement. The Greek amphitheatre, carved from the backdrop of a steep hillside, was a device for ensuring that the audience not merely saw but also heard.

He overcame personal adversity (injury), and was determined as ever for greater victory:

The pain from a wound, perhaps the lesions from a punctured lung, are a hindrance with which he had to learn to live.’ What this wound history suggests is a rising temperature of commitment, almost as if Alexander’s fever for victory rose with the tide of difficulty. For the difficulty did increase. Nothing succeeds like success goes the sayings – true enough, no doubt, when a man sets himself targets within the value system of an established society.

His strategy was unconventional, but one that proved to be successful:

The point to be observed throughout his subsequent generalship is that Alexander preferred the more to the less difficult among options and regarded evidence that the enemy had sought to increase the difficulty of a difficult option – by choosing a naturally strong position – as evidence of infirmity of purpose in the opposition. When he detected that the enemy had artificially enhanced the strength of a strong position – by fortification or the emplacement of obstacles – those signs seem to have clinched his conviction that it was there he should attack, since they signified that there the enemy was most vulnerable to attack, in psychic if not material terms. It is perhaps not going too far to say that Alexander, without benefit of Adlerian theory, had hit upon the concept of the inferiority complex and made its exploitation the kernel of his war-making philosophy.

He possessed unwavering courage:

His ferocious energy was one of the dimensions of character that transformed his physical and intellectual gifts into practical capacity. His unblinking courage was another. Alexander was brave with the bravery of the man who disbelieves his own mortality. He had a sort of godlike certainty in his survival whatever risk he chose to run. There is no hint, in any of the ancient biographies, that he ever showed fear at all, or that he appeared to feel it. This absolution from fear may have stemmed from his intimate identification with the gods of the Greek pantheon.

On Wellington:

He was always there on the front-line with his men:

What had prepared this extraordinary man for the mental, moral and physical ordeal of the four days of Waterloo – days that left those who had merely fought, without any of the strain of command Wellington had borne and perhaps less of the danger, shocked into pallor and silence by the horrors of the slaughter, drugged by fatigue and physically deafened by the close-range discharge of musketry? That Wellington had borne a greater share of danger than his subordinates is unarguable. Whenever the pressure of attack had flowed from one section of the line to another, he had followed it, leaving the units he had been supervising to a respite of which he had none at all. If he told his sister-in-law a day later. The finger of God was on me all day – nothing else could have saved me,’ he spoke close to the virtual truth.

He himself was narrowly spared. Though he had out himself at the head of none of the attacks – ‘taking trouble’ precluded that – he was constantly within range of cannon and frequently of muskets, perhaps as close as 200 yards. When giving orders to one of the Napier brothers, ‘a ball passed through his left holster and struck his thigh; he put his hand to the place and his countenance changed for an instant, but only for an instant; and to my eager enquiry if he was hurt, he replied, sharply, “no”, and went on with his orders’. The narrow escape discomposed him not at all. Napier saw him again ‘late in the evening . . . when the advancing flashes of cannon and musketry stretching as far as the eye could command [in fact across a front of about six miles] showed in the darkness how well the field was won; he was alone, the flush of victory was on his brow and his eyes were eager and watchful, but his voice was calm and even gentle’.

He relied on both his visual and hearing cues during the battle:

The range at which he observed the enemy varied. In manoeuvring before a battle, the armies might be separated by several thousand yards and yet still within sight of each other…What, in such circumstances, did he see and hear? More to the point, what did he look and listen for? Noise – its volume, quality. duration, bearing and range – was of the very greatest importance in signalling to him the course and intensity of action…This rise and fall of sound-waves would tell Wellington a great deal, would indeed provide his main means of gauging the pattern of events in sectors of the battlefield hidden from him by distance, ground or fire. They would also help to convey how resolute or battle-worthy were troops within visual range: half-hearted shouts and ragged volleys implied uncertainty of purpose or lack of real menace. But the evidence of his ears would count far less than that of his eves. Messengers from his subordinate commanders would, of course, bring him word of passing events, particularly of real or imagined crisis. But he counted on word of mouth less than other generals of his age, because of his settled practice of ‘taking trouble’, that is, going to see for himself.

He showed concern and compassion for the army he lead:

His concern for the afflicted was consequently strong. Self-control did not exclude compassion. Alexander had buried his dead and succoured his wounded because to leave a warrior’s corpse unhonoured was sacrilege to the Greeks, while to disregard the wounded was, at very least, bad policy. Wellington, by contrast, buried his dead because it was good practice but tended the wounded because it was charitable as well as sensible to do so. The dead were not buried with ceremony or memorial; it was a matter of getting corpses underground to leave a battlefield decent, control disease and preserve the morale of the army lest if pass that way again. The proper care of the wounded was, on the other hand, a matter of morality.

He was a true anti-hero:

Heroism to the Greeks, Professor Moses Finley has explained, contained ‘no notion of social obligation’. It was ultimately self-indulgent, self-flattering, solipsistic. ‘Pathos’, Alexander’s ‘burning desire’ to do something as yet not done by other men, perfectly encapsulates its ethos. Such a notion was abhorrent to the very centre of Wellington’s being. ‘Never forget.’ Napoleon once wrote to his brother Jerome, ‘your first duty is to me, your second is to France.’ Wellington, sailing to Portugal as a subordinate commander in 1806, reproved a friend for urging that he deserved a higher place by an exactly contrary statement of obligation. ‘I am nimmukwallah, as we say in the East; that is, I have eaten of the King’s salt, and therefore I conceive it to be my duty to serve with unhesitating zeal and cheerfulness, when and wherever the King or his Government may think proper to employ me.’

On Grant:

The military/warfare landscape during his time had evolved due to three important shifts:

Three elements in particular of the military system which had emerged from them rode in easy equilibrium. The first was the discovery that the pool of potential warriors that States could bend to their service comprehended a far larger proportion of the total population than they had earlier been willing or able to enlist. The second was that the pool required disciplining and drilling in a traditional manner if it were to obey orders. The third was that drill had begun to cede its central role in warfare to superior weapon power, represented primarily by the rifle, which promised to transfer advantage in warmaking to whichever society could most rapidly master the processes of technological change.

Grant set himself apart from Alexander and Wellington:

His propensity to judge the politics of warmaking is an index of the changes in the commander’s role that set Grant apart from Alexander on the one hand, and Wellington on the other. Alexander distinguished not at all between his role as ruler and his role as warrior. The two – in a world where states were held to be at war unless an agreement to observe peace specifically held otherwise, and in a kingdom whose court was also a headquarters – were identical. Judgements about the morality of any particular war would have been as alien to him as they would have been treasonable in a subject. Alexander was, in the strict sense, both the complete Hegelian and the perfect Nietzscheian. His state was the supreme expression of Reason and Will; he, as its ruler. Superman. Wellington, rooted in a society of law and institutions, would have been affronted by both notions; to him tyranny and raison d’etat were equally repugnant. For all the power he exercised, he strictly circumscribed his own freedom to question orders or contest Strategies. As a man whose highest ambition had once been to hold rank ‘as a major-general in His Majesty’s service’, he drew the sharpest distinction between his political opinions and his military duties. Both in India and in Spain, distance and consequent delay in communication had shielded him from day-to-day interference in his conduct of the campaign. But he did not thereby conceive himself empowered to make policy. Grant’s position was different again. Like Wellington, he rejected Alexander’s identification of military with political power. Unlike Wellington, he fought for his country not because birth made him its subject but because he judged its cause just. ‘The Confederates proclaimed themselves aliens, and thereby disbarred themselves of all right to claim protection under the Constitution of the United States, [becoming] like people of any Other foreign state who make war upon an independent nation.’

Grant understood the dynamics and fundamentals of the driving force behind the soldiers:

In a land of immigration and free settlement, with the sketchiest of civil bureaucracies and a strongly egalitarian spirit prevailing among the soldiers of both sides, it was their willingness to accept discipline, rather than their officers’ power to impose it, that ultimately kept them under arms. That willingness derived, when all allowance has been made for the inducement of regular rations and pay, from belief in the cause – Confederacy or Union, as the case was – thus making the Blue and the Gray the first truly ideological armies of history. No issue of personality blurred the quarrel, as it had in the English Civil War, and none of freedom or subjection to foreign rule, as in the struggles of Washington and Bolivar against Britain and Spain. The American Civil War was a civil war in the strictest sense, and its soldiers required to be led, not driven, to battle. Grant understood that, as his handling of his first regimental command clearly demonstrated.

As with Wellington, Grant was also an excellent writer:

Such dispatches equal those of Wellington at his crispest – as they did also in production of effect on the battlefield. But, as a writer. Grant exceeds Wellington in his powers of extended composition.

He studied and analyzed campaigns rigorously to aid in his planning and strategy development:

Campaign study had helped him develop the most valuable of all his aptitudes, that of seeing into the mentality of his opponents…More than that, he began to guess how they would react to his initiatives, and even how they would arrive at independent decisions…Grant did not found his mind-reading on mere divination. He valued objective information highly and collected it from many sources.

Grant understood the goals of the war, and what was necessary to achieve them:

As early as April 1863. as we have seen, he was writing that the war must achieve ‘the total subjugation of the south’ and that the army’s duty was ‘therefore to use every means to weaken the enemy’ by destroying not only their armies in the field but their economy at home. Grant’s title as ‘first of the moderns’ among generals derives from that gospel of frightfulness. Christian though he was, he had persuaded himself that the Just War doctrine of ‘proportionality’ restraint of violence within the bounds necessary to make an enemy resist from it – did not apply in a war of principle. Even before his protege Sherman had begun to make his name as a burner and breaker, therefore. Grant was burning and breaking with a will, turning recalcitrants out of their homes once territory was captured and ruthlessly carrying the war into the hearts of the Southern people. But there was a limit which even he was prepared to set to ruthlessness: he would not countenance private law-breaking in the use of violence, either against property or the person.

On Hitler:

It is necessary to first understand the context following the first world war:

The First World War remains, to the Western mind even at the end of the twentieth century, the war, by reason not only of the destruction it brought to the primacy of the Old World and the agony it inflicted on the manhood and family feeling of a whole European generation, but of its abidingly mysterious character. ‘How did they do it?’ the first question put to anyone confronted by the terrible reality of the trenches, gives way almost at once to a second, even more imponderable, ‘Why was it done? Why did the armies persist in the impossible, the breaking of barbed wire by breasts of flesh and blood.? Why did the generals bind them to the effort? No armies ever before, not even in the worst passages of siege warfare, sustained courage or casualties with the suicidal relentlessness of those on the Western Front. The nature of Western Front fighting seems to defy nature itself. Whence that extraordinary defiance?

As the second half of World War 2 was settling in, so was defeat for Hitler:

But by that stage of the war he was a man living with the knowledge of inevitable defeat, a knowledge that marked his face. hair, gait, posture and gestures with ghastly evidence of the stress he bore. The worst of his fears he kept at bay with bold expressions of belief in the tide-turning powers of his secret weapons; but they must have co-existed with the anticipation, growing within his consciousness like a psychic tumour, of the death he knew he would ultimately have to inflict upon himself. For the last two years of his life Hitler woe breathing, walking, talking, calculating corpse. destined as certainty for the grave as any of the millions he marked for death in that terrible climax of his dictatorship. The power to kill was, indeed, the only power left to him after mid-summer 1943. Peace he knew his enemies would never concede to Germany while he remained at its head; surrender meant, he must have guessed. trial and execution as a war criminal. After Kursk, therefore, his generalship partook of nothing more than reflexive reaction to his enemies’ initiatives. Strategic choice had slipped from his grasp. never to be restored. If we wish also to perceive something of the means by which he exercised it. Therefore, we have to return to the earlier period of his time as Feldherr – lord of the field.

The command and control strategy that Hitler adopted was a significant contributor to his downfall despite the advancement of technology in radio communication that enabled it:

The brief answer is that the Second World War. when widened to include the Soviet Union and the United States among Germany’s enemies, was a war that Germany could not win. A fuller answer needs deeper analysis. First and foremost there is the issue of Hitler’s command style. He decided from the outset, as we have seen, to centralize decision-making at a point far from the front and thence to supervise the control of operations in the closest detail. Fuhrerprinzip provided the motivation that underlay this choice: if he was to exercise supreme power, he must do so in the military as well as civil sector. But he could not have realized that ambition, had not current technical developments, unfortunately for the German army, made available to him the instruments which, superficially at least, endowed him with the means to do so. Radio – ‘wireless’ better communicates its crucial military quality had, by its perfection in the 1930s, dissipated the cloud of unknowing which had descended between the fighting soldiers and their commander ever since long-range weapons had driven him from the focus of combat. Wireless generated a flow of information from the point of critical contact between friend and foe which. properly used, did allow headquarters at successively higher levels of command to monitor the progress of events and moderate their course by sensible intervention. But ‘sensible intervention’ implied a division of responsibilities. On the Allied side it was generally and scrupulously observed. Churchill, for example, took the closest interest in the conduct of battles but had, or was talked by his advisers into, the sense not to interfere with his generals when crisis at the front transfixed their attention. Hitler, as we have seen, did not.

Furthermore, the inflexibility of his strategy, was the nail in the coffin:

The ultimate cause of his inflexibility may, however, be judged to different source, lying in his fixed perception of how high command ought to be exercised. In essence, it derived, as with so much else, from his trench experience. From those years he had brought the conviction, rooted in the German army’s own First World War doctrine, that unless going forward an army is safest if its stands firm, holding to ‘the rigid defence of a line’, as Falkenheyn’s general staff memorandum of January 1915 ordained. To it he added, once he had acquired the self-confidence to impose his operational judgement on that of his generals – and he had begun to do so even before the opening of the battle of France – the belief that ‘remote control’, insensitive to the tactical ebb-and-flow though it had been in the First World War, served better than direct involvement once radio communications allowed direct touch with troops in the fighting line. ‘In the long run you can’t command in the roar of battle,’ he had preached on December 12, 1942. ‘Gradually [a man] loses his nerve. It’s different in the rear.’

On a concluding note, John argues that military leadership, in the nuclear era, requires a non-hero:

The concept of struggle, and its attendant ethic of heroism. broods over us all today. It lies at the heart of Marxism and hovers not far from the guiding belief of democracy in the values of human freedom and choice. Yet the spectre of risk, by confronting which the leader authenticated himself as hero, is no longer deflected from those who follow him by the singular role he takes for himself. On the contrary, it diffuses the whole arena of struggle, threatening everyone equally, if not indeed the led more directly than their leader. The traditional means by which the leader sought to validate his followers’ sharing of the risk he led them to face – the cultivation of a sense of kinship, the use of sanction, the force of example, the power of prescription, the resort of action – now all fail. Indeed, what is asked first of a leader in the nuclear world is that he should not act, in any traditionally heroic sense, at all. An inactive leader, one who does nothing, sets no striking example, says nothing Stirring, rewards no more than he punishes, insists above all in being different from the mass in his modesty, prudence and rationality. may sound no leader at all. But such, none the less, is the sort of leader the nuclear world needs, even if it does not know that it wants him. ‘Post-heroic’ is the title he might take for himself. For all is changed, utterly changed. Passing brave it may once have been to ride in triumph through Persepolis. Today the best must find conviction to play the hero no more.

A recommended read on multiple dimensions: historical, military, and leadership.


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